Hall of Fame Football

San Francisco general manager John Lynch laughs before a Jan. 19, 2020, game against the Packers in Santa Clara, Calif.

DENVER — Many often wonder what the criteria are to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Is it Super Bowl victories? Pro Bowl appearances? Record-breaking stats? Sure, all those play a part in being selected. But for Nick Ferguson, who played five seasons for the Broncos alongside several Hall of Famers, it’s more than that.

“For me, it’s about how did you change the game and how did you influence the game,” said Ferguson, who was a 10-year safety in the NFL. “When I think about Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, who did they watch coming up? There are a lot of guys playing now, and who have recently gone into the Hall, that they grew up watching John Lynch.”

Lynch, who played safety for the Broncos the final four years of his 15-year NFL career, will be immortalized Sunday in Canton, Ohio, having been a finalist for eight years before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And for some, they consider that eight years too long, including Ferguson.

Ferguson said he believes Lynch is one of the top-five safeties of all time, alongside Raiders’ Jack Tatum, Packers’ Chuck Cecil, 49ers’ Ronnie Lott and Broncos’ Steve Atwater, who will also be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday with the class of 2020.

But for Lynch, the wait to be inducted wasn’t something he got frustrated with over the years. He had accepted his fate as a finalist.

“As a competitor, there’s a strange dynamic to it,” said Lynch, the 49ers' general manager. “You can’t compete for this. I think the resumé you put forward is what you did — what I did for 15 years. By the time it gets to the voters, it’s not like you can go have one more performance to convince them. It’s there and there’s not a whole lot you can do.”

Unfortunately for safeties, this was often the reality when trying to get into the Hall. For years, the safety position was considered one of the most underappreciated positions in football, and that was no different for the Hall of Fame committee.

There have only been 12 true safeties inducted into the Hall of Fame and half of those have come in the last five years: Lynch (2021), Atwater (2020), Polamulu (2020), Reed (2019), Brian Dawkins (2018) and Kenny Easley (2017).

“That’s one thing that’s extremely gratifying is to see there has been a movement, and a well-needed one, that speaks to the value of that position,’’ Lynch said. “For years safeties were facing an uphill battle getting into the Hall. A number of safeties have gone in. Brian Dawkins, Troy Polamalu, Steve Atwater. The list is long here in recent years and I think that’s appropriate because I think that position really has an impact on football. The reason being is you’re asked to do a little bit of everything.”

Lynch did do a little bit of everything during his 15-year career. He helped Tampa Bay win Super Bowl XXXVII and was a nine-time Pro Bowler — four of which came in Denver, where exceeded expectations in back end of his career and became one of the Broncos' most important leaders alongside Champ Bailey. In his four seasons as a Bronco, he totaled 271 tackles, nine forced fumbles and three interceptions. 

“John was really a role model for me not just for how to be a great player, but what it’s like to be a person who dedicates themselves to doing things for others in the community and being a good husband and father," Ferguson said. "You add John to an organization that had won some Super Bowls, but our team hadn’t gotten to that point, so that’s why John was there. He had won a Super Bowl with Tampa, so he understood the sacrifices both on and off the field that it was going to take to take that next step."

Lynch was known as one of the most physical players in the league at the time. He was an old-school safety, whose specialty was punishing ball carriers and who donned the nickname “The Closer” for coming up with turnovers at crucial points in games.

“He would play recklessly,” Ferguson said. “So much so that I would say this: it was great playing with John for so many reasons and one of the best for me was the referees would look at John for so many things, so I got away with so much more. That was the luxury of playing with John. His physicality helped set the tone for our defense. When he would make a play, it would force me and everyone else around us to make plays because you didn’t want to be that guy that wasn’t contributing to the defense.”

Today, though, the safety position has changed drastically, Lynch said. The new, high-powered, throwing offenses can be blamed for that, as he admits his style of play likely wouldn’t translate to today’s NFL.

“When I first came in, there were a lot of safeties that looked like me — 220 pounds, bigger thumpers who dealt with big running backs,” Lynch said. “I think clearly now, and a guy we have now in San Francisco in Jimmie Ward is a great illustration of a guy who has cornerback skills who can get down and cover tight ends but who can also get up in the slot and cover receivers. Justin Simmons in Denver is another example. A guy who’s got enough size to mix it up and play physically but also can hold up in coverage.

“I think we’re in a cycle right now with all the passing in the game that position will always require a skill set where you have to do a multitude of things. I think it’s why I loved the position. … There will always be cycles but I think versatility will always be a hallmark of that position.”

So while Lynch's physical play may have generated one too many targeting calls in the league today, he'll still always be remembered as one of the greatest to play the position. And although it's likely taken too long for him to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Sunday will still surely be a special day for him and all of those who played alongside him. 

“This is going to be an amazing moment for John because he waited so long and I know — he and I talked about it — and he said he never really thought about it that much,” said Ferguson, who was Lynch’s teammate from 2004-07. “But I know in his heart of hearts it mattered to him. Because it solidified him as being one of the best of the best. To make it in the NFL, it’s hard. To stay in the NFL for a 10-year career, is even harder. But to get into the Hall — you are the best of the best of the best.

"And John Lynch was one of the best of all time. He is now a part of history."

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